Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Mirror Neurons in the Sociopath

Seriously Creepy Eyes
What is a sociopath? A killer? A raging lunatic?
Martha Stout has written a relatively short book (though not as short as it could have been) defining the sociopath and arguing that sociopaths are surprisingly common, 4% of the population in fact.

There are two things I liked about this book and two things I really did not like about this book.

First the good:

1. Dr. Stout effectively argues against the stereotype that sociopath=serial killer.  She defines a sociopath as someone without a 'conscience' who is incapable of real empathy. If this is combined with 'bloodlust' the person very well may turn out to be a serial killer. But if it is combined with 'preferring inertia', the person will manipulate their way into a situation where they are taken care of and don't have to do anything. 

2. A very powerful insight that Dr. Stout has is that the very fact of having a 'conscience' is what keeps 'normal' people from identifying and stopping sociopaths. A person with a 'conscience' will easily take the point of view of the sociopath and try to justify or explain their actions in terms of 'having a conscience'. "they are just depressed", "they didn't know this or that", "there must have been a miscommunication".  It is almost impossible for a person with a conscience to comprehend someone doing something manipulative or cruel for essentially no reason, so they try to invent a reason that would make the sociopath's actions comprehensible to them. The very thing that the sociopath is lacking: the ability to empathize and identify with the wants and needs of others, is the thing that prevents 'normal' people from identifying them. 

Now the bad:

1. What the heck is a 'conscience' anyway? Dr. Stout talks about the conscience like it is some brain structure that you either have or don't have. I wasn't convinced that people are either complete sociopaths or completely normal. I assume there is a continuum, and Dr. Stout does nothing to convince be otherwise, while at the same time constantly implying that it is an either/or situation.

2. I would have been much more interested if this book had delved into the possible neural underpinnings of conscience. It is getting a reward signal from the 'happiness' of others? Getting a pain signal from the pain of others?

An example that came to mind is a scene from the movie Pan's Labyrinth that will probably haunt me forever. A man has had his mouth slit and there is a very painful-to-watch scene where he sews up his own cheek, bandages it, and then takes a shot of vodka. The vodka seeps out his cheek into the bandage. I remember having a very physical reaction to this part of the movie, literally cringing and grabbing my own cheek. 

What I want to know is do sociopaths have this same physical reaction, or would the 'not having a conscience' or 'inability to empathize' prevent something so instinctual.

Well lucky for us, someone else is wondering this same thing something similar.  A 2008 paper tested healthy individuals for degrees of 'psychopathy' with a self-report questionnaire, and then measured their responses to transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) of the motor cortex during videos. They claim that this is somehow measuring mirror neuron activity, but I think that it going too far since they are not measuring individual neurons.  

Figure 1 Fecteau et al., 2008

They used a nice set of controls to specifically isolate the effect of watching something potentially painful. The videos were of a qtip touching a hand, a needle touching a hand and a needle touching an apple.  They also ran all the videos stopping them early (before the contact between the objects is made).

In 'normal' people, seeing a needle poking a hand causes a reduction in response to TMS stimulation. What this reduction in cortical excitability means is not clear, so any finding in this study will be hard to interpret. They found that the degree of response reduction was not correlated with the psychopathy index when taken as a whole, but when they isolate the 'coldheartedness' component, they find that the more cold-hearted a person reports they are, the stronger the signal reduction is during TMS. Despite the nice controls, this study leaves a lot to be desired.  They have a small sample size (n=18), and even their relatively mined correlation is not very strong (R=-0.58). In addition, the increase in signal reduction is 'supposed' to indicate 'more empathy', so the meaning of this study is basically ripe for the cherry-picking. Fortunately they don't spend a ton of time speculating wildly about what this reduction might mean, they simply say that their study finds a 'link' between motor empathy and cold-heartedness and end with the classic 'more studies need to be done'. 

Unfortunately the information that can be gleaned from this study is pretty limited, and the brain of the sociopath is still a mystery.

A caveat: I assume someone has studied whether the physical reaction that I describe above occurs in sociopaths or not, but I did not find a study testing it.  If you know of one, please send it my way. 

© TheCellularScale
Fecteau S, Pascual-Leone A, & Théoret H (2008). Psychopathy and the mirror neuron system: preliminary findings from a non-psychiatric sample. Psychiatry research, 160 (2), 137-44 PMID: 18599127


  1. I remember thinking the very same thing when I read this book--what is a conscience? IF (and that is a huge if) it does exist at all, can it not be developed? I still have a very hard time thinking of sociopathy as an actual diagnosis, more like a symptom that can be attributed to another mental illness?

    1. ASPD is closely related. Our lack of fear allows us to detach ourselves from certain scenarios, perceive the pain as that mirrored feeling of joy from yesterday and thats what it becomes. We are constantly aware of ourselves *as we are* yet always perceiving ourselves *as we seem to be*.

  2. What about the Hare prison experiments? Didn't they show that the sociopath even has a hard time having "empathy" with himself (i.e. little reaction to a anticipated electrical shock)? I assume Stout mentions this in her book.

  3. I know at least two sociopaths personally. One of them, a 'preferring inertia' type, intimately. Based on my experience, I do not believe they were sociopaths from birth. I know factually that one has experienced extreme abuse, and I have known and lived with this person long enough to see several complete behavioral cycles (i.e. specific and repeatable events which produce specific repeated behavior). I believe this person has experiences of empathy, but they are few and far between. I believe that these people have put up psychological defenses which prevent them from feeling empathy all the time. I know that when I am verbally abused by others, I stop caring about their feelings for a short period of time (I do not hurl insults back at them, but I am both blunt and pointed with my responses). The more comfortable these people are, the more willing they are to open up and be receptive to the feelings of others. The trouble is that it takes A LOT to make these people comfortable, and any progress is very easily undone; the psychological walls of a sociopath are thick and rebuilt quickly. These are very damaged, very sensitive people. I am still unsure, but would like to believe that sociopathy is curable. Brief periods of empathy are certainly achievable for some, and it is definitely a continuum. Although... perhaps the empathy was feigned and I failed to see things objectively. Life is hard with the burden of conscience...

  4. Great points, all. Amanda, I think it is hard to think of sociopathy as an illness, but partly because(as Dr. Stout points out) it is not clear that the sociopath is suffering from their 'disorder'. I hadn't thought about it being a side-effect or symptom of something else, but that sounds possible. And I agree, I don't see why the conscience would be completely fixed and hardwired, while everything we've learned about the brain recently shows that most connections in the brain are very changeable.
    Ali, I don't recall Dr. Stout mentioning those in her book, and I don't know much about them. Sounds interesting though.
    Anonymous, thanks for sharing your experiences. I agree that the conditions one is in can shape the amount of empathy a person shows. The book does go into that a little, citing the way people demonize the enemy in war to make them seem less human, and thus evoke less empathy in the soldiers who are supposed to kill them. And I agree, there are some people that I just do not empathize with at certain times. It is an interesting idea that sociopaths might have corresponding 'glimmers of empathy'.

  5. There was a This American Life on this a while ago:

    And there is this book by Jon Ronson (which I have not read yet) "The Psychopath Test":

    So my sources are clearly those of a layperson. Still it might complement the Stout book.

  6. Dave Grossman, former Army Ranger and psychology professor at West Point, wrote two books, On Killing and On Combat, which explore training someone to kill on command and the grittier combat realities.

    What ethical and emotional trauma do normally socialized men suffer being trained to kill on command? They are forced to experience horrific things in ground combat that the warrior who pushes a button to kill someone hundreds of miles away need not confront. Leaving their normal values to act like an active sociopath.

    One speculates a correlation between that values conflict and the awful rate of suicide among returned veterans. The inculcated suspension of empathy has horrible consequences for thousands who bore the battle. An American Holocaust if one will..

  7. Master manipulators that seek to use others to fulfill a purpose. I am certain my ex-husband is a sociopath, but I think he has other disorders as well. Narcissism, Bipolar, and perhaps some kind of Splitting Disorder. Hindsight is 20/20. Looking back even from the very beginning his reasons for wanting to be with me were only for his personal gain. This behavior continues even today. He certainly does not think he has a problem, but everyone else does. He projects what he feels about himself on others and honestly believes his lies. Talking to his parents and siblings this behavior has been present all of his life. He is very charming at times and for those who do not know him well he would seem to be a great guy. It is only after spending time around him that he shows his authentic self. When this happens he is left abandon and seeks out new prey. It is truly scary to see him when he is in a rage, but he will insist others are to blame for anything that goes wrong. I believe drugs and alcohol abuse plays a large part in his peaks and valleys. He uses a variety of pain medication and stimulants along with alcohol to numb the demons that reside in his head. I have not read the book, but my curiosity has certainly been peaked. I have however done an extensive amount of research to understand this type of person. I don’t know if there is a way to treat a true sociopath. I say this because in order to want help the individual has to admit he has a problem and a true sociopath does not think he has any problems. He feels as though he is the victim of all the woes in his live.

    1. The problem here is that you perceive his *undiagnosed* disorder as something that can be treated, here you are wrong. Even though a Sociopath might not admit or recognize what they are does not mean they want to change or ever will be able to. Our minds are programmed to perceive reality very differently to an empath, we detach ourselves and find it extremely hard to fight our impulsive urges. This is why your husband chooses to use drugs and alcohol, marijuana helps to fight the boredom. My advice to you is to get away and cut your losses. He can't change. He may be a low operating Sociopath, most times these people can't even recognize that their differences are not commonly perceived as normal, this is why he deals with anger and rage, often uncontrollable and relentless due to confrontation or when everything suddenly is not in his power. I strongly suggest leaving while you can, be strong, stronger then the Sociopath.

  8. I have experience with two sociopaths and a number of "homosexuals" who are probably on a pedophile spectrum. "Gay" culture is fairly narcissistic and duplicitous. Nature and nurture, double lives in the closet and male sex drive etc. Out of all this haze I'd extract these pedophile types and put them on the heap with the sociopaths and APD

    These pedophile types have a number of strong correlatives with both sociopaths and narcissist although they do experience shallow emotions and empathy. They tend to react with anger instead of hurt, they cannot sexually pair bond, they're generally manipulative, duplistic, predatory, autoerrortic and emotionally arrested, etc.

    My point is that we can look at the extremes in Hare's prison studies but a number of cloudy personality conditions exist that make this a much more difficult topic. "Gay culture" is informed by all sorts of paraphillias that get labeled "gay". So a homosexual capable of sexual pair bonding gets buffeted with life experiences that teach otherwise.

  9. The "true" sociopaths that I've known do not seem to be blocking anything. They seem to not have empathy or have an empathy that is strictly purposed to reading and exploiting others. They don't seem to seek continuity with others over time. They can take or leave anyone in their lives. They have other attributes. They're dynamic, volatile, in need of novelty/easily bored. Somewhat histrionic. They might appear to have ADHD or they may have it. They don't care for and secretly hold empathy and love in contempt. They see empathy as only an impossible to resist target for manipulation. They don't want help.

    Others that seem to be blocking empathy may resent love/empathy but at times they also want it/need it. They just turn around and kill and/or manipulate it as soon as they receive it. They're different in the way they go about things. The sociopath cultivates victims but can just as easily turn away. The others... the narcissist and other predators/abusers turned abusers... They need continuity, a connection to their prey. They just can't maintain it and indeed get used to or even practiced at destroying the connections with any continuity.

    I think their is a difference in these two personality types. Some may be blocked, disordered, etc. but they've been damaged too deeply at a young age. They are set in their ways and just as unrecoverable as the sociopath. For this reason, although some behavioral narratives/archs may be "sick" and can get worse or better, overall the individual is not "sick" They will be more or less the same until they die.

    It will be interesting in the coming decades to see if the sociopath is compared to other disordered individuals to map out the different points at which empathy can be missing, mutated, turned off, or blocked. Even if the majority of sociopathic disorders are unreformable, it may help those of us with issues and not disorders to heal.

  10. If the mind is malleable, then it follows surely that all mental conditions are too ... ergo all mental illness is curable, we merely lack knowledge of the appropriate treatment (or the knowledge may be culturally suppressed).
    Reason wins over emotionalism, which is itslef often a defense mechanism to avoid dealing with the complexities of existence.

  11. There is a blog called psychopathic writings (google it). I am not sure that it is written by a real psychopath but it could be. There you can find at least theoretically, the experience of the psychopath told by himself. It is interesting.

    By the way, given that they are quite skilled in know how the others feel (to abuse them) I think that there is no reason to think that they lack every form of empathy. To understand how other is feeling (to abuse him) is important this. They say that they understand it, the know how other people feel but they don't care about it.

    And of course, I don't see how mirror neurons could be implicated in the psychopath behaviour in any special way different from non psychopaths.

  12. You do not need empathy to understand how another person's mind operates on some level. That's like saying you need empathy to understand how a computer works. Sociopaths view other people as inanimate objects, robots.

  13. A friend recommended this book several years ago after the behavior of someone I considered a good friend left me reeling. It was an eye-opener and I realized that she'd just been using me and everyone else since day one. This is the third copy I've bought. I keep loaning mine out and not getting it back because people find it so useful -- and that's ok.